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Turkish-American Basketball Player Enes Kanter on Being Targeted for His Activism

NEW YORK – The life of basketball player Enes Kanter Freedom could be a political thriller as he has been in the crosshairs of his native country’s government with a warrant from Interpol and his Turkish passport revoked five years ago. During this time, he did not leave the United States, nor did he participate in games his NBA teams played against the Toronto Raptors, based in Canada. For Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is just another political opponent who should have already been sentenced to prison. His travels abroad now require guarantees for his safety. He is gaining recognition, but at the same time, he is also receiving threats.

The Turkish-American basketball player became an American citizen on November 29, 2021, and also legally changed his name to Enes Kanter Freedom in honor of his citizenship. In an interview with The National Herald, he spoke about his life as a wanted man by the Erdogan government, the Greek-Turkish issues, his nomination for the Nobel Prize, his opinion on possibly moving away from the NBA for non-competitive reasons, but also the possibility of playing in Greece with a direct reference – once again- to Panathinaikos.

TNH: First of all, how do you feel that you traveled, after several years, again abroad, now having the passport of a country in which you are active and have found refuge in recent years?

Enes Kanter Freedom: The trip to Switzerland for the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy is the first time I have left the United States in five years. A few months ago, I got my U.S. passport and finally I can travel outside of the U.S. I was anxious but I think everything went well.

Left to right: Gregory J. Stamos, AHEPA Human Rights Award recipient Turkish philhellene NBA basketball player and Portland Trailblazers center Enes Kanter, and AHEPA Supreme President George Horiates. (Photo: TNH/ Zafeiris Haitidis)
Left to right: Gregory J. Stamos, AHEPA Human Rights Award recipient Turkish philhellene NBA basketball player and Portland Trailblazers center Enes Kanter, and AHEPA Supreme President George Horiates. (Photo: TNH/ Zafeiris Haitidis)

TNH: Do you have any insecurity when you are now thinking of traveling abroad, given that the Turkish government is eyeing you for arrest?

EKF: There is always a threat. I have received many messages threatening my life. If I am going to a country, the first thing I do is get in touch with the government or services to make sure they provide me with security wherever I go. Erdogan’s people can be anywhere. The same will happen if I go to Greece, where I trust people.

TNH: What are the feelings of a man, whose passport has been revoked and has been targeted by the government of his own country?

EKF: First of all, it is unacceptable! It is not possible because I do not think the same as the Turkish government, to send a signal to Interpol. They took my passport and that is unheard of. The fact that someone is against the regime does not mean that he is an enemy of his country. The American passport I have means a lot to me. Now, I have a place I can call home. People here in the U.S. have embraced me since day one.

TNH: Apart from the Courage Award you received in Geneva, you have also been nominated for the Nobel Prize. How important is this nomination for you?

EKF: If I receive the award, it will be important, both for me and for every person who is pressured by the status of his homeland. But what I do, I do not do for any award. The important thing is that a platform will be offered to talk about human rights violations around the world.

TNH: However, there are many more of your compatriots who have fled to escape arrest. Some, in fact, are in Greece…

EKF: At the moment, because of Erdogan, there are many Turks who leave Turkey, go to Greece, and find refuge there. I thank the Greeks and the Greek government, because they accepted these people from the very beginning. If they had been deported they would have been political prisoners.

TNH: What is your view on Erdogan’s policy towards Greece and Cyprus in recent years?

EKF: Erdogan abuses everything against the people in Greece and Cyprus. For example, he turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a World Heritage Site. This is disrespect for culture and religion. If Erdogan stays in power, Turkey’s relationship with Greece and Cyprus will deteriorate as he abuses his power. Everyone understands that Erdogan is a threat not only to the Middle East, but also to Europe. Greece and Cyprus will experience it more, because they are closer. I hope that the Greek government will do something about it.

TNH: In the midst of all this, an issue has arisen with your career as well. For some time now, you have not been on a team in the NBA and we have heard you talk about an informal exclusion as a punishment for your statements about human rights violations in China. Others argue that the reason you do not have a team is competitive. How do you answer that?

EKF: Last year, I was in Portland and I had average double-doubles and we went to the playoffs. I was key. They come and tell me after a year that I forgot how to play basketball?

FILE- Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter, right, blocks Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

TNH: So do you think that there is something behind this development?

EKF: When I started talking about what was happening in China, the Celtics were cut off from Chinese television. That cost the NBA money. So the NBA says it stands by us for freedom of speech. I do not believe it. In other words, it stands, as long as what we say what helps his pocket, otherwise they will do everything they can to finish you. I say this because they are trying to get me to retire at 29. But I know I can play another 6-7 years because I love basketball, I’m healthy, and I think people can see that I deserve to be in the NBA.

TNH: Is there a prospect of playing in Greece, if you do not continue in the NBA?

EKF: My first goal is to play in the NBA and I want to be there. However, if this does not happen, I have grown up watching Panathinaikos, Olympiakos, and other teams, while my brother, who played last year in Greece and Kolossos Rhodos, told me how good it is there. But first of all, I would like to meet with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

TNH: You had spoken in the past about the desire to meet with the Greek Prime Minister. What is your position on this today?

EKF: First of all, I would like to shake his hand and thank him for accepting the Turkish refugees. This is an important step of friendship between Greece and Turkey. Next, I would like to talk to him about whether there is a possibility to come to a team like Panathinaikos and build the friendship between the two countries. If I play on a Greek team it will not be just for basketball. I want to build a bridge between these people. We are not so far away: we eat the same foods, while our culture is very close.

TNH: So, do I see a preference for Panathinaikos?

EKF: Panathinaikos is the first choice. Let’s not forget that my friend Hezonia was also playing there. If it was a Greek team, I think I would go to Panathinaikos. It depends, of course, on what will happen with the NBA and the meeting with the Greek Prime Minister.

TNH: It has been observed that, due to your appearance on television networks such as Fox News, but also the fact that Republican politicians have supported you, some circles identify you with the Republican Party. Is it true that you take a position?

EKF: Unfortunately, the public does not understand! I am neither Republican nor Democrat. I’m talking about politics and human rights. Every time I go to a show it does not mean that I embrace its positions, but that I want my message to go to that audience.

TNH: In closing, what are your thoughts on the war in Ukraine?

EKF: First of all, the people must realize that the future of Europe and the free world is being judged at this time. Putin wants to destroy democracy. Ukraine must be supported. I am talking to the former First Lady of Ukraine, Mrs. Yushchenko, and we are trying to work together to protect the people of the country.

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